Top Seven Time Management Tips for Conference and Event Planners

Marguerite MacRobert

Time management is an important ingredient of success. It’s the essential ingredient if you are planning an event or hosting a conference. Allow Namibia Planners’ expertise to guide you with our top tips on how to manage time effectively.

Some of these steps might seem like too much, especially if you are short on time,  but it’s so important to start right and give yourself a structure to work with. Trust me, it will save time down the line and you’ll thank yourself later! This is good use of your time. As Abraham Lincoln said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

Set Goals first

Time management has a lot to do with how you choose to use available time. You can’t choose wisely unless you know what your priorities are. You can’t know this unless you know what your goals are. So your first question has to be: what exactly do I want to achieve with my time?

Let’s say you are planning an event. What is your goal? Write it down. The more specific you can be, the better. Remember a goal is not a ‘to do list’ item or task, but it needs to be clear. For example: ‘host the best conference ever’ is too vague. ‘To plan a conference that dazzles the guests’ is a bit better, but still too vague, so perhaps you want to break it down. Your overall dream might be to dazzle your guests, but in practical terms, what does this mean?

As an example, you might want to have some sub-goals such as: ‘Book a highly relevant, cutting-edge keynote speaker’, and ‘Attract major international role players in the field to Namibia as attendees’, or even, ‘Impress my boss with my dazzling organisational ability’. It’s a great idea if your goals make you feel inspired and highly motivated, and start with verbs. Then they are things you can take action on.

Importantly, an event or conference is not all about you, so you do need to take the organisation or others involved into account when coming up with your goals and check that they are in alignment. If you are working as a team, then a session where you clarify your goals will be well worth the time. The same goes for a number of other items on this list – they could need to be done individually and also as a group if you work in a team.

Write your goal or goals down somewhere you can see them regularly as you plan. I’ll explain why in a minute.

List your tasks

Write down everything. Yes, everything. You’ve got a mountain to climb, so what are ALL the tiny steps it will take to climb it? Break everything down into clear tasks to complete.

If you like mind-mapping, now is the time to get out your paper and pen, or you might like to list things under sub-headings and bullet points.

To take our previous example, you want to book a fabulous keynote speaker. Picture this in your mind and start jotting down what achieving this will require: a list of potential speakers and their contact details, a date, a venue, some copywriting explaining what the conference is about and who the target audience are, remuneration offered, accommodation and transport arrangements (and who will pay for these), etc. Ah… there is a lot to do before you can even start making those phone calls to Michelle Obama, isn’t there?

Absolutely clarity is what you’re aiming for here, so you can’t trick yourself into thinking you can put things off until next week or the week after.

Prioritise

Prioritise overall, and review your priorities daily, while checking in with your goals. Research shows that successful people check their goals daily. This helps you keep on track, especially when, well, life happens and things get busy.

Take a long hard look at all your tasks. Give yourself a simple code, like A, B, C, D… where A is most important and D is less than vital. Go through your whole list and give each item a number.

What do you do with all this? When you start writing your weekly and daily to-do lists, you make sure that you get to those A-listed items first, whatever else comes up. You can always shift a B or C list item to another time or day, but you will aim to get those A list items completed no matter what.

A useful trick is to spend ten minutes at the start of each week and then each day, deciding what your MITS (Most Important Tasks) are. That way, if you are working on more than one event or conference, or on other parts of your job in addition to event planning, you can pick a few of those A list items from each project to complete daily.  Experts suggest a maximum of 3 MITs per day, but this naturally depends on how long each one takes. Perhaps it’s a venue booking enquiry email which will take 5 minutes to send. Then you have room for more. The key here is to build momentum every day by making sure you don’t get off-task and do maintain that laser focus on achieving your goals.

Plan backwards

To move forward effectively when something has a fixed end date, you need to plan backwards. Once you’ve got a few potential conference or event dates shortlisted, you can start to shuffle your to do list items into the order you need to do them in, and give each one a completion deadline. Armed with a clear goal, the tasks it will take to achieve it, and deadlines for each task, you can blaze ahead with confidence. Your communication with others will be clearer and your management of your time will be razor sharp.

When it comes to planning an event or conference, it is essential that you get a location and dates set as early in the process as possible. If some of your key players (such as the company you work for, or a government department) are available to talk to, meet with them as early as possible and determine a selection of possible dates that could work for this event and if they have a set budget, determine what this is. These two things: money and timeframe, will be powerful factors in determining everything else in your organisation schedule.

If someone requires you to give them an expenses ballpark or propose a budget, then this will be one of your earliest priorities. A curated online directory like Namibia Planners, where you can search for and compare curated venues and other service providers all in one place, can really save time and energy in this process.

Once you know your date, you can start to divide up the set amount of time you have, according to your priorities, and this should become reasonably clear. Get out a calendar where you can see the whole time frame you are dealing with at a glance (be it 2 months or 6) – print it out if possible so that you can scribble on it, and get out your pencil.  Go back to your task list. In what order do your tasks need to be done, and by when, in order to get from where you are now to the date your conference ends?

As an example, let’s return to our keynote speaker. By when would you need to have confirmed your speaker? Before you advertise the event to other potential attendees, or only by the time you are printing the programmes? Which leads to the question: by when do you need to have shortlisted potential speakers and contacted them? This, in turn, leads to: By when would you need to confirm the number of attendees? Which leads to: By when would you need to start inviting attendees or advertising?  Who are these attendees and how do you contact them (email, facebook, telephone)? How will you compile this mailing list, and by when will you need to have the email written? All these tasks should be on your task list, but many will still crop up once you start looking at the actual time frame and realise that you will need x before you can get to doing y.

Once you’ve shuffled things around for a bit and it looks like everything has a time frame, mark the priorities with a your letter system again, so you can clearly see which things are most important and which can potentially be put off a little. You will be able to get going, starting today.

Eliminate

 If you are starting to feel a panic attack coming on, this might be time to review your goals and your task list and ask yourself if there is anything non-essential that can be let go right away, or at the very least, put in a separate ‘nice to have’ list for if you do have time (perhaps everything will go so smoothly you will be able to add these things in later). If it is a wonderful event planning idea, but just won’t fit in this time, put in a clearly marked notebook or ideas folder on your computer for future conferences and events.

Just as you might not be able to realistically find the money in your budget for the Milan fashion show of your dreams or for everyone on your team to have a go at hoverboarding over the Namibian sand dunes, you might not have the time resources to organise it. Popular venues, for example, can book up a year in advance, so if you only have a few months to work with, your choices might be limited and you’ll have to go back to the drawing board.

Part of time management is realistically asking yourself what can be achieved within your time frame and presumably you have other things to do with your time besides plan this event, whether you plan other events as well, or this is only a part of your usual job. You may have other wild ambitions, like to kiss your kids goodnight and eat and sleep occasionally, so it is important not to over promise and end up unable to deliver, or with a crisis on your hands at work or home.

Be ruthless in terms of deciding what you can let go of as early on as possible, and repeat this process from time to time as the event draws closer. What just isn’t working out and can be eliminated so that you can do really well at the essentials? Keep looking at your goals. Are hand-made origami swans really the best way to hand out the promotional materials to 200 conference delegates? Something that seemed like such a brilliant idea in the brainstorming phase might not have turned out to be practical in the execution phase. Being adaptable and flexible is the hallmark of a good planner, so you’ll be able to figure something out, but only if you are able to first passionately sing the Disney Frozen anthem to your original idea and Let.It.Go.

Delegate

Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither was it built by one person. Where you can delegate to trusted minions or other professionals, do so gladly, with clear deadlines. Try to identify tasks to delegate as early in the organising process as possible. Your co-workers, friends and minions need to plan their time too.

Remember to decide on check-in points and negotiate them upfront, so someone else who might have poor time management skills doesn’t impact on what you are delivering. Something like this should do the trick: ‘I need to you do x, y, and z by 10 December (this should be a day or two shy of when you really need it done.) I’m going to check in with you again on 2 November and 2 December to make sure things are progressing OK and if there is any trouble-shooting we need to do together. Does that time framework for you?’.

If you’re using digital tools like Google calendar, schedule these deadlines in and send them to them as well. If not, make sure they are in writing in an email or WhatsApp so that you can refer to them later. If you arranged things in a meeting or by phone, send a follow up email as soon as possible after the meeting to confirm. This prevents any nasty surprises and makes conflict resolution so much easier should the need ever arise (it frankly makes conflict a whole lot less likely too).

People often really appreciate clear expectations and reminders like this and it’s a wonderful drama prevention technique. Of course, remember to show appreciation and gratitude – people will work harder for you if you show a team-player attitude and enthusiasm for their contribution of time and effort.

Choose time management tools to suit your personal style

There is an ocean of apps out there promising to make time management easier, project management a breeze, etc.etc. Perhaps your company has made a big investment in training in using the Google Suite or Microsoft Office. Then you’re browsing on Pinterest or watching a TED talk and see cute images of bullet journaling or hear that writing things by hand is better for your brain and memory. Help! What to do?

The secret is to do what works for you, but try to stick to one key system. Things get hair-raising when you have voice notes and photos of brochures in Evernote, web pages bookmarked on your browser, messages saved in email and WhatsApp, reminders on Google calendar and a desktop diary for appointments…. How much time do you have to manage your time-management tools, exactly? Something is going to fall through the cracks.

Whatever your boss/ best friend/ spouse or Oprah Winfrey say, you need to find what works for you and your unique brain. There is no magic pill that will work for everyone. You might be a visual-verbal person with multiple work projects on the go at any one time, and a young family to manage, so a bullet journal system works brilliantly. You record and plan everything in your journal and index it. The visual element is fun and the fact that you can check on everything in one place is pure gold. A straight desk diary might not be the best tool for you – there is less flexibility.

On the other hand, you might prefer a large desktop diary where you can see a month and week at a glance, or you prefer keeping everything at your fingertips with your phone, laptop and smartwatch hooked up on the same app. f you do a lot of collaborative work, then perhaps the full Google suite or Dropbox with collaborative editing on documents and spreadsheets would work best.

Experiment by all means, and use more than one for different projects but eventually you need to choose a primary system that holds it all together and where you can see, daily, at a glance, your goals and planned tasks, and where you can also frequently review the big picture.


We hope this post helps you enjoy your time planning more and getting great results. Please feel free to share your life-changing time management tips in the comments. Don’t miss our post about The importance of punctuality.

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